WildStar is comfortable being an MMOG. It’s strange that this is remarkable, and that it should be a cause for celebration when a new game in a popular genre seems happy to be what it is. But the recent history of the MMOG is a story of games caught between audiences, brands and genres. WildStar ignores all that and sets out its stall deep within the territory established by Blizzard a decade ago. Perhaps that’s not surprising: developer Carbine was founded by 17 members of the original World Of Warcraft team.
Carbine has got as close as anybody to recapturing the feeling of early WOW, and while WildStar is unlikely to be epochal in the same way, it comes strongly recommended to anybody who has ever been captured by this particular arrangement of questing, RPG theory, exploration and strategy. WildStar is a comprehensive retooling of what made this genre great, paired with an eye for style and a strong sense of fun.
It’s set on Nexus, a legendary planet rediscovered by a band of refugees called the Exiles. Nexus was home to the Eldan, a galaxy-conquering progenitor race that has since vanished, but not before littering the planet with technology. In Nexus, the Exiles see an opportunity to claim a new home as well as the weapons needed to fight off the forces set against them – specifically, a militaristic empire called the Dominion. The Dominion was founded by the Eldan before they disappeared, and believes that it has a religious right to claim the planet for itself. Every character belongs to one of these two factions, and each side sports a separate set of alien races with humans as common middle ground.
This isn’t hard sci-fi. WildStar’s look and feel borrow a little from Star Wars and a lot from both Ratchet & Clank and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Its alien world is rendered in deep purple, teal, orange and neon green. Its characters are tuned for expressiveness, moving and jumping and fighting with a degree of flair and personality that demonstrates a real understanding of what makes a cartoon character pop from the screen.
These qualities are reflected elsewhere. Loot, for example, doesn’t wait to be collected. When a monster dies, it explodes in a shower of giblets and collectibles that bounce off into the surrounding area before being hoovered into your character with an audible whoosh. Score a double or triple kill on a mob of enemies and the game’s announcer will bellow his approval in the tradition of Unreal Tournament; he even screams, “Holy bleep, you levelled up” when you progress to level two.
WildStar’s liveliness plays a key role in making the game accessible and attractive to newcomers, but it also belies its depth. While it’s possible to progress alone – and there’s plenty to do if you choose to play that way – group encounters, raids and challenging instances are introduced early and accompany the experience all the
WildStar’s PvP borrows more than a little from MOBAs in that any ability can be deployed skilfully or unskilfully
way to level 50 and beyond. This is the most demanding MMOG we’ve played in years, its difficulty compounded by a combat system that places heavy emphasis on movement and positioning alongside a precipitously deep gear and upgrade system.
Combat is almost entirely based on area-of-effect attacks that project from your character and from enemies in cones, lines and circles. Each class manages the system differently: frontline Warriors are able to survive a few blows if it means staying in melee range, while Spellslingers deal huge damage but desperately need to stay out of the enemy’s reach. Advanced play means chaining together ‘rotations’ – efficient runs of spells and abilities – while moving, dodging, watching your periphery and managing your resources.
This focus on area-of-effect abilities works well in PvP combat. The Spellslinger’s Flash Freeze power, for example, roots any enemies in a broad cone in front of the caster. Against monsters, you’ll use it to kite or to escape from fights you can’t win; against players, hitting a group when they’re clumped together sets them up for devastating attacks from the rest of your team. WildStar’s PvP borrows more than a little from MOBAs in that any given ability can be deployed skilfully or unskilfully, expressing the personality and talent of the player behind the controls.
Monster enemies possess their own attack patterns and these become increasingly elaborate. Bosses create mazes with their projectiles and force reactions from players. While the healer-damage-tank system is deeply familiar, WildStar’s new ideas recalibrate the way the system functions, and raids in particular demand a degree of dexterity and coordination that goes beyond what has been done in the genre before.
The game’s biggest weakness is that it doesn’t work very hard to introduce these ideas to a new audience. It makes a strong statement for the value and legitimacy of a type of game that has been exploited and derided for years, but it relies on familiarity with the genre to crack through the layer of mechanical noise that is introduced after its breezy introduction. This issue is exacerbated by a UI that sags under the weight of all the types of information that it has to present. Player-made addons can alleviate the worst problems, but using them requires a degree of technical nous beginners may not have. WildStar also demands a subscription fee, a model that might fly with the MMOG-savvy players it targets, but that’s being challenged by free rivals.
For your money, however, this is the best new MMOG since Guild Wars 2 and arguably the most feature complete an MMOG has ever been on launch. Raids, PvP, housing, dungeons and so on may all be familiar concepts, but it’s been a long time since they’ve been presented this comprehensively, and with this much charm, on day one.